A Very Texan Rosh Hashanah
Shared by Zoe Kanan
Recipe Roots: Białystok, Poland > Manhattan > Houston
Zoe Kanan’s grandmother Helen was an unlikely Texan. A New Yorker, born and raised on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Texas was a blip on her radar, “other than when the Mets or Dodgers were playing the Astros,” says Zoe. But, she followed her only child, Zoe’s mother Marian to Houston. There, she held onto some of her New York Jewish traditions, rooted in her family’s Polish heritage.
Each Rosh Hashanah, Helen baked honey cakes for the extended family, carefully wrapping them and carrying them to the post office to send back to New York. When Zoe was 10, she was helping out with the annual mission when the two were in a fender bender. With a sprained wrist, Helen, the keeper of the family recipes, couldn’t prepare Rosh Hashanah dinner.
The responsibility fell to Zoe’s father Jim, a former punk rocker and painter. “My mom... doesn’t really cook,” explains Zoe. “My dad is the cook in our family. He’s a pitmaster.” The problem? Raised in an Irish Catholic home in Texas, there was a 20 year cold war waging between Jim and Helen. Fearful of the war escalating, Marian sent her mother home saying that Jim and Zoe would sort out dinner. At 10 years old, “I was mostly the sidekick,” says Zoe.
Jim approached the meal with a Texas mentality and pantry. Texas ingredients, in the Kanan house usually meant Mexican ingredients. Fittingly, Topo Chico, an exceptionally effervescent soda from Mexico made its way into the matzo balls. Jalapenos were chopped and tucked into gefilte fish along with masa or cornmeal, and in place of brisket, there were smoked “dinosaur ribs,” or beef short-ribs.
The dining room in their Houston home was tense, but the matzo balls, light and fluffy from the Topo Chico started the evening off well. By the end of the savory courses, Helen had licked the ribs clean. “For the most part, my grandmother embraced the meal because she admired my dad’s enthusiasm,” Zoe explains.
For dessert, there was Helen’s honey cake leftover from the baking expeditions a few days earlier, before the crash. “My grandmother would joke that cakes get better sitting around for a few days,” she says.
It’s a recipe that Zoe’s traced back to Poland. “The original version was from my great grandmother Sadie...I’ve figured out that her version was a piernik...almost like a gingerbread,” she says. “A honey bread more than a cake.” Sadie would make a large batch and cut it into slabs, giving out pieces to family members, much like Helen did.
The recipe morphed as it moved down the generations. Helen incorporated instant coffee to add more depth of flavor, and sugar. Zoe, who is the executive baker at hit Manhattan restaurants Studio and Simon & The Whale, first made her rendition of the cake in 2014, when she worked at Sadelle’s, a modern dairy deli. She caramelizes the honey, works in buttermilk to keep the cake tender, and adds vanilla to Sadie’s clove and cinnamon to spice the batter. It’s a recipe she’s taken to every professional kitchen she’s worked in since.
While the recipe has changed considerably, Zoe sticks to her grandmother’s wisdom: “Whenever I make honey cake, I do it a few days in advance, because the flavor does actually improve as it sits around.” The time delay makes it perfect to follow Helen and Sadie’s lead and take it to the post office to send to friends and family. Just watch out for those fender benders.
Zoe shared a version of this story during our live storytelling event, Schmaltzy, on October 3rd. Listen here:
Zoe Kanan's Honey Cake
Makes: 10” bundt cake
Time: 45 minutes + 50 minutes baking time
1 cup honey
½ cup heavy cream
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
½ cup dark brown sugar
1 ½ cups granulated
1 cup minus 1 tablespoon buttermilk
3 large eggs
1 cup grapeseed or vegetable oil
3 ½ cups unbleached all purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon fine sea salt
1 tablespoon cinnamon
¾ teaspoon clove
Nonstick spray or melted butter for greasing the pan
1. Preheat the oven to 325° F.
2. Using nonstick spray or melted butter and a pastry brush, coat the inside of a 10 inch (12 cup) bundt pan very thoroughly. Don't miss the inner column - this batter is sticky!
3. In a small bowl, stir the vanilla extract into the heavy cream and set aside.
4. Caramelize the honey: place the honey in a deep pot with tall sides (the honey will foam A LOT). Set the pot over medium-low heat and bring the honey up to a boil, stirring regularly. Once foaming, stir constantly and cook to 285° F, about 5-8 minutes. Slowly (and carefully!) whisk in ⅓ of the cream and vanilla mixture and stir to combine. Mix in the remaining cream and set aside to cool slightly.
5. In a medium bowl, combine the granulated sugar and brown sugar breaking up any lumps with your fingers. Whisk in the oil, buttermilk, and eggs to thoroughly combine.
6. In a large bowl, place the flour, baking powder, baking soda, sea salt, cinnamon and clove and whisk to combine. Make a well in the center and add the wet ingredients and the caramelized honey mixture.
7. Use a large whisk to slowly pull the dry ingredients into the wet and whisk until combined into a smooth, thick batter.
8. Fill the prepared bundt pan and bake at 325°F until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean and the cake springs back to the touch, about 50-55 minutes.
9. Cool for 20 minutes before unmolding, then let cool completely and dust with powdered sugar. Enjoy with fresh whipped cream and a dollop of apple butter!